July 28, 2009: An International Brotherhood of Teamsters local violated federal labor law when a union steward told a United Parcel Service Inc. employee in the presence of other employees that the union dropped his grievances because he had run against an incumbent in a union election and because the company did not like him, the National Labor Relations Board held July 24 (Teamsters Local 886 (United Parcel Serv. Inc.), 354 N.L.R.B. No. 52, 7/24/09 [released 7/27/09]).
Reversing an administrative law judge's dismissal of the complaint, Chairman Wilma B. Liebman and Member Peter C. Schaumber found that the steward's statement was within the ambit of his grievance-processing duties. The board also found that the employee who heard the statement could reasonably have believed that the steward was acting on behalf of Teamsters Local 886 when he connected another employee's protected activity with a refusal to process that other employee's grievances.
The local's revision of its bylaws following a 1977 board ruling in a similar case involving the same local did not change the scope of stewards' authority, the board said. It held that the local violated Section 8(b)(1)(A) of the National Labor Relations Act, which prohibits unions from restraining or coercing employees in the exercise of their rights guaranteed in Section 7.
Hawkins Overheard the Conversation
The case involves employees working for UPS in Oklahoma City. The employee who had the relevant discussion with a union steward was Michael Reynolds, while the employee who heard the discussion and was the focus of the board's analysis was Thomas Hawkins. Reynolds had been a Teamsters member for 25 years, had about six years of experience as a steward at UPS and at a previous employer, stopped serving as a steward at UPS in June 2007, and ran unsuccessfully in November 2007 for a union trustee position. Hawkins had been a union member for 17 years but had never been a steward or held any other union position.
Reynolds and Hawkins were in the office of Tommy Kitchens, an assistant business agent for the union, on Jan. 28, 2008, along with Wes Pruitt, a union steward who was on the slate of candidates that defeated Reynolds in the union election. Reynolds asked Kitchens about the status of two grievances Reynolds had filed in November 2007. Kitchens said the union found there was no contract violation and would not pursue either grievance. Nothing in this first conversation was challenged as illegal.
The following day, the steward Pruitt approached Reynolds, Hawkins, and another employee sitting together in a break room. Pruitt and Reynolds began discussing Reynolds's grievances. Hawkins overheard the steward say to Reynolds: “You lost your grievances because the company doesn't like you and you ran against them.”
Reynolds filed an unfair labor practice charge regarding Pruitt's statement, and the NLRB general counsel issued a complaint alleging that the union made a coercive statement to employees in violation of Section 8(b)(1)(A). An ALJ dismissed the complaint in August 2008, finding that Reynolds could not have reasonably believed that the steward was acting on behalf of the union when he made the statement.
The ALJ cited Reynolds's knowledge of the local union's bylaws, which the judge found specify the limited nature of stewards' authority. The judge also found several “unusual circumstances”—that Reynolds knew that Pruitt was pretending to have inside information regarding the grievance and that Pruitt had played no role in the two grievances, that Reynolds knew that the bylaws and the bargaining contract limited stewards' authority, that Reynolds already knew that the union found his grievances lacked merit, and that Reynolds knew that Pruitt was speaking for himself and not the union.
The ALJ did not consider whether the steward's statement was illegal on the ground that Hawkins also heard it and could reasonably have believed that Pruitt acted on behalf of the union.
Bylaws Change Made No Difference
In a prior case involving the same union local, Teamsters Local 886 (Lee Way Motor Freight), 229 N.L.R.B. 832, 95 LRRM 1137 (1977), the board found that a steward was acting within the scope of his grievance-processing authority, as defined by the bylaws and the bargaining contract, when he said to an employee who had requested an investigation into a union election: “If you should get fired there will be no one [to] back you.” The board found that the stewards were authorized to receive and investigate grievances and that although stewards did not have the authority to refuse a grievance, there was no evidence that rank-and-file members knew that.
In response to that board ruling, Local 886 changed its bylaws to state:
“Stewards are not officers or agents of the Local Union. ... A steward may take action to represent an aggrieved member by presenting the member's grievance to the Employer's designated representative. If this does not result in an answer that is satisfactory to the member, the member may request further representation by his Business Agent or the President. ... Any other action of a steward by oral or written communication shall not be authorized by this Local Union nor shall this Local Union be liable for any such written or oral communications.”
But the board found that the bylaws change made no difference. As in Lee Way Motor, “the current bylaws and collective-bargaining agreement authorize a steward to receive, investigate, and process grievances and to transmit authorized messages that are in writing or of a routine nature,” the board said. It found that “Pruitt's statement, which purported to convey the reasons why the [union] dropped Reynolds' grievances, is even more squarely within the ambit of grievance processing than the steward's statement” in the earlier case. And like the steward in Lee Way Motor, “Pruitt is an agent whose basic responsibility is to administer the grievance machinery,” the board said.
Because “an employee like Hawkins could have reasonably believed that Pruitt was acting on behalf of the [union] when he made the statement linking Reynolds' protected activity with the [union's] refusal to process his grievances,” the statement violates Section 8(b)(1)(A), the board said. It found it unnecessary to decide whether the statement also violated Section 8(b)(1)(A) regarding Reynolds because such a finding would not affect the remedy—ordering the union to cease and desist from making such coercive statements and posting a notice in the union's offices and meeting hall.
Local 886 argued that Hawkins, like Reynolds, knew about the bylaws change and the purported limits on stewards' authority. But the board found that “[t]here is no evidence that Hawkins was even aware of the changes to the bylaws or the [union's] reasons for making them” and that the changes “did not curtail a steward's authority in any meaningful way.”
The revised bylaws' statement that “stewards are not officers or agents” directly conflicts with the specific authorization of stewards to process grievances, the board said. It also found that the language allowing union members to request further representation by a business agent or the union president “does not expressly limit a steward's participation to the initial grievance steps.” And the bylaws' statement “purporting to disclaim the [union's] liability for a steward's unauthorized communication is not determinative under the common law of agency where, as here, the steward is empowered generally to act in the area of grievances,” the board said.
Unlike Reynolds, Hawkins never was a union steward or officer and testified that he was unfamiliar with the union bylaws, the board said. It found there is no evidence “that Hawkins knew, as Reynolds may have, that Pruitt was only speaking for himself or that Pruitt was only pretending to have inside information about the grievances.”
By Susan J. McGolrick
The decision appears in Section E and may be accessed here.